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Success on a Rio Grande scale

Reducing cat overpopulation and euthanasia in Albuquerque

From Animal Sheltering magazine March/April 2014

More and more shelters are taking a "return-to-field" approach with community cats. Best Friends’ Community Cat Project aims to sterilize 10,500 community cats before its grant runs out.

Though two local groups had long practiced trap-neuter-return (TNR), and had significant success in reducing feral cat populations in Albuquerque, N.M., in 2010, the city animal welfare department’s two shelters still euthanized 53 percent of the cats they took in. That included 100 percent of admitted feral cats.

When Barbara Bruin became director of the Albuquerque Animal Welfare Department (AAWD) in 2009, the winds began to shift. Bruin saw that trap-and-euthanize wasn’t working as a population-control measure and decided to try TNR. By 2011, the department was sterilizing healthy feral cats and transferring them to Animal Friends of New Mexico’s Street Cat Companions for return to their original locations.

Best Friends Animal Society and PetSmart Charities were monitoring what was happening in the city, and they liked what they saw. In January 2012, PetSmart Charities gave a three-year targeted grant to Best Friends, which started its Albuquerque Community Cat Project (CCP) in April 2012.

Best Friends staffers Desiree Triste-Aragon, CCP coordinator, and Jayne Sage, the project’s assistant, wear multiple hats in their work. The women trap cats for sterilization, working to ensure that they’ve trapped and neutered all the cats in a given colony. But they also arrange the neuter and return of nearly 1,000 cats that members of the public bring to AAWD—cats who once would have been euthanized. These cats are not impounded by the shelter, but held in the intake area until CCP can pick them up.

This approach is typically called return-to-field, and is practiced by an increasing number of shelters for healthy feral and community cats brought in by the public. In this model, the shelter itself doesn’t trap the cats, but provides them with a better outcome by ensuring that they’re neutered and returned when they’re brought in.

According to PetSmart Charities program manager Bryan Kortis, return-to-field is a valuable tool, but has little impact on the overall feral cat population because cats come in randomly from all over the community. By targeting TNR efforts in the areas where cats have been picked up by the public, CCP is able to have a greater impact.

Triste-Aragon and Sage have built trust by connecting to the community, reaching out to both people who bring cats to the shelters because they want them removed, and people who feed the cats and want to help them. They explain that healthy cats aren’t killed, regardless of temperament. They hang fliers on doors to educate people about feral cats and TNR and provide deterrents for people who don’t want cats on their property.

“When people really know the reality, they want to support humane alternatives,” says Holly Sizemore, Best Friends national programs director.Although the AAWD shelters don’t have a big role in the CCP, they’ve benefited immensely. Animal control officers have more time to do their jobs. They don’t pick up healthy cats because Triste-Aragon and Sage are there to help with those calls, shepherding the cats from the initial complaint or animal control referral call to their return after surgery.

The CCP program has also freed up resources that AAWD uses for lifesaving programs. Because its shelters now have empty cages, AAWD can accommodate more kittens and friendly cats who can be adopted out. Thanks to the CCP, lots of kittens—some with upper respiratory infection and ringworm and even bottle babies—go to foster care.

Peggy Weigle, executive director of Animal Humane New Mexico, one of the groups that, along with Animal Friends of New Mexico, has been doing TNR in the area for years, is pleased that Albuquerque is approaching its animal sheltering challenges as a collaborative effort. “Overall, the animals win,” she says.

AAWD’s euthanasia rate for cats has plummeted to just under 11 percent, and Bruin sees a brighter future for cats thanks to the CCP. “It’s a good thing for people that love cats and people that don’t like cats, ’cause ultimately it leads to fewer cats,” she says.

Kortis believes that reducing the number of community cats is possible with the right strategy and resources. “The goal is a world where we don’t have thousands of cats on the streets and they’re not flooding the shelters—and you don’t have to keep returning them to field because they’re not gonna be there to be returned,” he says.

On Feb. 9, AAWD celebrated its two-year anniversary of not euthanizing feral cats. “That’s pretty cool to see in a city the size of Albuquerque,” says Triste-Aragon.

Shelly Kotter, Best Friends community cat program manager, notes that representatives from dozens of other communities have come to Albuquerque to learn about CCP’s lifesaving approach. If it meets its goals, CCP will have spayed or neutered 10,500 community cats and laid the groundwork for Albuquerque to sustain its success after the Best Friends grant runs out in 2015.

About the Author

Nancy Peterson is the former Community Cats Program Manager for the Humane Society of the United States.